Archive for June, 2009

SatNav for the Soul

Friday, June 26th, 2009

SatNav cartoon

Eating dirt

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

As a Fathers day surprise, my kids booked me onto a bushcraft course. Now I don’t endorse Fathers day as I view it as a cynical commercial marketing ploy on behalf of novelty companies everywhere but the kids thought I would genuinely enjoy learning some bushcraft.

Still in ignorance of what was to come, I was transported to the venue and then told of the event. I realised I was unsuitably dressed for a day in the woods but as it was a family type thing I reckoned it was unlikely that anyone would be wading across a freezing river or swinging from the trees. It was the longest day of the year and the sun was at its strongest so I was already worried that I had not greased myself over with enough sun blocker.

We were split into five groups but most families tended to maintain their intimate relationships and not bother to interact with anyone else. The first jobs were to light a fire and to build a shelter. The females in our family decided to be the homemakers and build the shelter while my son and myself volunteered to be the fire-starters.

A pile of branches had already been dumped close by and we were given loppers and wood saws to trim our faggots to the correct length. Within minutes of me sawing a two inch thick log, drops of sweat were raining down onto the log. We then had to dig our fire pit in a designated area. So each group commenced digging within a few feet of each other. This would have serious consequences later on.

The challenge was to start a fire with tinder and fire sticks (basically a flint and steel). Although I managed to get the tinder alight and then the web of fine branches I had constructed over the tinder, the intermediate sized branches simply would not catch fire. They were possibly too damp or I had constructed my fire incorrectly.  In the end I, and every other group, had to resort to fire-lighters. At least when our fire did get going, it was the first to become a roaring blaze.

I had to break off fire lighting duties occasionally to help with the heavy construction of the shelter. This amounted to punching holes in the earth with a builders steel pole. This was heavy work which I was unused to.

As the other groups’ fires started to get going the consequence of having so many in such a small area became manifest; unavoidable smoke. Whichever way you turned, it seemed a bank of sulphurous white smoke was heading into your face. Before long we were all blinking fiercely and imbued with the stink of burning wood.

One of the organisers then told us we would be baking garlic bread. Sounds nice I thought. My daughter of seven years whispered a question into my ear, “Daddy, is that a man or a girl?” I whispered back, “I’m not sure myself, but I think she’s a girl.”

It turned out the garlic was to be wild garlic and we were marched off to the bank of a nearby stream to pick the leaves of the abundantly available plant. I was near another couple and they were thinking aloud about washing the garlic somehow as it may have been peed on by a dog. I joined in with their conversation as I had the very same thought. At home it is an automatic response to rinse any fruit of vegetable under a running tap. This was necessary with supermarket produce because it was nearly always contaminated with pesticides but here, in the wild, what then?

In the end we decided it was OK to rinse the garlic in the dubious looking stream water (we were only in the grounds of a Hall and very close to built up areas) as it would eventually be cooked.

We took our garlic leaves back to the fire and our hermaphrodite organiser began to mix some dough for us. She did this with hands that had handled wood, wild garlic, shovels, dirt and who knows what else that one is inclined to fondle in the pursuit of bushcraft. I looked on slightly uneasy.

The dough was handed to us, along with a clutch of fresh sardines, banana and some chocolate pieces on a bread board. It was suggested that we cook our bread using either a willow stick and wrapping the dough around it or a flat stone placed over the fire. A pile of such stones was nearby.

I checked on the stones and found a suitable one about the size of a large dinner plate. As I carried it to the fire my hands became grubby with the dirt and dried mud and I realised I couldn’t use the stone as it was. I just couldn’t. So I carried it to the stream and rinsed it thoroughly. I then took it back to the fire and placed it on top of a couple of stout burning logs to heat up. When it had dried out the dough was simply dropped onto the stone to cook.

The sardines were supposed to be cooked in wet newspaper but I managed to get hold of some aluminium foil to wrap the fish in. This silver parcel was also put onto the hot stone.

The unpeeled banana was supposed to be slit and the chocolate pieces inserted into the slit before baking on the stone. I looked at my hands which had chopped wood, handled stone and dirt etc. and looked at the smooth dark chocolate which I had to insert into the banana. Could I be bothered to go to the stream and rinse my hands in its flowing waters (which could possible be loaded with bacteria)?

No, I could not. The chocolate piece was inserted unceremoniously into the banana with grubby hands. I was turning native.

Eating the food was another hygiene dilemma. Hardly any utensils had been brought and it seemed that dirty hands would have to be employed again. Everyone else seemed to be happily eating dirt and I couldn’t help reflecting on just how far I had moved from nature. Eating dirt was the natural consequence of wild living. The human body expected dirt and possibly even utilised some of its beneficial properties. ‘Civilised’ society had become obsessed with hygiene.

The food tasted surprisingly good. Even the nettle tea which was passed around proved to be agreeable.

The day ended with reconstituting the ground by putting out the fires and filling up the pits with soil. The kids loved this part and had terrific fun watching water boil on the hot stones. They then, of course, experimented with other materials to see how they behaved when subjected to great heat (we tend to think of this as play but it is in fact real learning).

As it happened, no one in our family got sun burned and no one suffered any adverse digestive problems. Eating uncontaminated dirt appears to be harmless.

And it was my best Fathers day present ever. Thank you kids.

Seize the day

Friday, June 19th, 2009

Decades ago, on a school trip to London we visited an airport. In the gift shop I bought a felt badge which needed to be sewn onto a garment. The badge showed a passenger aeroplane and proudly announced the name of the airport. It was a fine badge.

So fine was it, in fact that I deemed my current anorak unworthy of such a badge. I decided I had to wait until I had a coat which matched the prestige of such an emblem and the badge was carefully stored in a drawer somewhere. Of course, time passed and no superior garment was ever purchased.

As an adolescent I did have an anorak which I adorned with military emblems and anti war symbols (I was more interested in the graphic design than any political ideology) and the airport badge had now become too childish to sit alongside these hard core images. Eventually I realised the time for the airport badge had passed and I would never utilise it.

I still have that airport badge, still in its cellophane wrapper. It is still being carefully stored in an old suitcase in the loft. I keep it as a reminder. There is no point cherishing anything. No point waiting for the future. Things pass, times change, we die. There is only the now. Everything happens in the now.

I must remember that.

Lottery paradox

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

Someone won a lot of money on the lottery recently. The media is quoting them as saying something to the effect of ‘it won’t change my life’.

I thought that was precisely why people played the lottery; to change their lives completely. So what was he playing at?

How to write good

Thursday, June 11th, 2009

A pottery class was divided into two groups. Each group was told they were involved in a competition with the other group. One group was told the winner was the group that produced the best pot. The other group was told the winner was the group that produced the most pots. Guess which group produced the best pot..

Deciding to become a writer is probably the biggest mistake most novice writers make. They probably admire certain writers and imagine that one day they might become as good or as famous as them. They might even try to emulate their style or story structure.

The truth is, you simply are a writer, but a not very good one. You don’t decide to become a writer, you decide to make a living from writing.

For a writer, having an extensive vocabulary or using vivid metaphors are useful tools to have in the box but the overarching strength of any writer is their authenticity. If you are true to yourself and to what you believe in then all the other accessories of writing – grammar, structure, detail – will naturally follow with practice. Some people attempt to learn the artifice of writing before they have something to say or a story to tell. As a result they have to bolt their writing skills onto a borrowed idea and the result is a Heath Robinson contraption which no-one believes in and raises a smile with its attempts at sophistication.

I know all this because I went through the process. I tried really hard to become a good writer and the harder I tried the worse I seemed to become. It didn’t matter which big words I used, they couldn’t hide the fact that the message was still missing.

Then one day I was involved in an unpleasant incident which proved both painful and revealing. It occurred to me that writing about it might prove cathartic. However, the memory was still too raw to allow the thing to writhe about the page naked and bruised so I decided to drape some modesty cloths over it and dress it up as a piece of fiction. It was to become my first short story which possessed a life of its own. The words wrote themselves, hot and vivid.

The incident concerned a fearful encounter I had with a street beggar. I had gone on an evening walk to try and clear my head. The beggar was unusually aggressive, and shocked by his attitude, I broke down and wept before running away from the man whose words chased after me.. “I only want to buy some fags! No need to be such a big baby about it!”

The shame was the spur. I told the story pretty much as it happened but with the extra clothing in the narrative. When I had finished, it was a bittersweet moment for although the story was painful to write, I knew it had a life of its own.

I gave a copy of the story to a fellow student who lived in the same halls of residence as I did, to get his opinion. Half heartedly he took the story from me and said he would look at it sometime.

The next morning he approached me at breakfast and told me how much he had enjoyed the story. He had only intended to read the first few paragraphs he said, but then got involved in it and read the entire story in one sitting. When he said that, it was like a precious gift he had given me. Because I grew up then. That’s when I knew what good writing was about.

One of two things happen after that; you either keep on writing to hone the rough diamond you have unearthed, or you don’t. Or maybe you just keep coming back to it like a dusty musical instrument you neglect to play for months at a time. The thing is, the improvement comes from the doing. The more you write, the better you become. You can’t help it. But always, at the heart of the work, is authenticity.

So the potters who created the most pots also produced the best pots. They couldn’t help it.

Reflections on Rome

Friday, June 5th, 2009

Rome during rain storm

Coming into the city by train, the first thing that impresses you is the graffiti; just how bad it is and just how prevalent it is. Nothing is spared its insidious crawl across the city. I even saw some black spray scribbling on a moving white van. I don’t know if there is some traditional folk art or history of graffiti in the culture of Rome but frankly, it looks crap.

I can only assume the authorities are too lazy or corrupt to do anything about it. And it’s easy to see why, despite its problems, the tourists continue to come to see Rome in their millions, as indeed we had.

The first visit was the Colosseum. As we had a Roma Pass we dodged the huge line of people waiting to buy a ticket. I recommend the Roma Pass.

This was the beginning of June and half way through the morning as we circled the corridors of the Colosseum my daughter was already complaining about the temperature – she was too cold! Heavy rain had persisted for hours and a leaden sky showed no sign of abating. Although we had waterproofs with us we had not anticipated the cold and we had to retire early to the gift shop just to warm our daughter up. As for the Colosseum itself, it was the sheer size of it which impressed me. There is a line from Gladiator, a Ridley Scott film, where a prisoner sees the Colosseum for the first time and asks incredulously, “Men built this?”

If I thought that was big, the Basilica of St. Peter’s had a surprise in store. Everything was vast at that place including the queue, and this was off season! Actually, the queue, which snaked around the square provided an opportunity to study some human behaviour. You could see evolution in progress here.

The first thing to remember in this situation is that information for the majority of the people there is incomplete; what are the rules? People can see a queue so they join it but tour groups seem to have some kind of ‘access all areas’ type pass. Also an individual may be holding a position for a group of friends or relatives so when you see them joining the queue further up the line, is that legitimate queue jumping?

In an environment like this lots of sub species can flourish. The vast majority of people were docile and compliant and uncomplainingly queued. By the time we were in the middle of the queue I saw a middle aged couple surreptitiously wander close to the queue and pretend to take pictures of the church. As they paused and feigned interest in their snaps they carefully inveigled themselves into the queue by slowly keeping pace with it. Once they had deemed they had not been discovered they visibly relaxed and silently congratulated themselves on cheating everyone else. Or so they thought.

They had not allowed for the brazen raptor species. These were people who simply walked to the front of the queue and joined it, their utter confidence acting as a natural defence against any possible protest from the people just behind them. I even saw a white haired, energetic old woman, clearly an employee of the church, attempt to police the queue and confront this particular couple who had headed straight to the front with suitable hand gestures which pointed to the end of the line and the forcibly spoken word “Avanti!” but to no avail. This shameless couple refused to comply and simply dodged round her outstretched arms to continue their ruthless march to the front. The rules were clear now, the line we were in had no special exemptions or privileges. I felt compelled to show solidarity with the white haired woman and physically challenge the predator couple. This would have cowed them I am sure as this type of animal relies on the bemused acquiescence of the majority. Any dissent signals possible danger and harm. As much as I was keen to conduct this experiment, I had to consider the consequences of ‘unexpected scientific results’ and possible embarrassment to my family. I therefore made myself feel better by imagining yelling “You’ll go to hell!” in Latin at the queue jumpers.

The queuing was worth it though. Again, the sheer scale of the church was awesome and every square foot of its surface area was covered with the most ornate decoration you can imagine. I suppose their prize possession is  Michelangelo’s masterpiece, Pieta, but seeing it was a waste of time. I’m afraid I don’t buy into the, ‘I’ve seen the original, even though you can only get within fifteen feet of it and It is hidden behind a sheet of bullet proof glass and poor lighting which means you see more of it in a decent photograph in any book about the church‘ philosophy.

But Pieta was only one of many works of art in this massive space. The billions of man hours involved in the creation of this artefact was mind boggling. This is a deliberate ploy on the part of the church of course, it needs to validate its superstitious ideas with impressive displays of wealth and power.

At least the entrance to the church was free, unlike St Paul’s in London whose policy of charging an entrance fee I have criticised before.

I was also reminded of the potent power of these superstitions even in today’s scientific age; the brass feet on a sculpture of St. Peter looked like pats of melted butter due to the countless number of hands touching them in supplication, I heard a black man admonish a loud voiced German tourist with a ‘shush!‘ because the German was not showing enough reverence in this holy place, the millions of people who come every year to worship, not just admire.

We didn’t bother with the Vatican, it was simply too much for one day. You can only be awed for so long.

Talking of being awed, the Borghese gallery is a jaw dropping experience. The paintings on the ceilings alone are worth the entrance fee although you could only appreciate them for five minutes at a time as the human neck is not meant to be in a horizontal position for long.

The big attraction however is the sculptures, particularly the Bernini masterpieces. Now these you can see, from 360 degrees, from one inch away, in bright daylight. How this man has turned stone into flesh and hair is genius. All of us were transfixed by his renditions; the indentations of fingers into flesh, the folds of skin, the filaments of hair streaming from a head. There is not much to choose between Michelangelo and Bernini, so forget Pieta and visit the Borghese gallery.

Unfortunately, the Italians like to spread their cultural wealth thinly. We wanted to find a National natural history museum or art gallery, of the kind they have in London and New York. All the good stuff in one place, kind of thing. Alas, they have a National this and that, a score of museums, in different places, like pieces in a giant jigsaw.

At least the Italians like children. Twice, in the space of three days, middle aged adults gave up their seats on a crowded Metro for our seven year old daughter. I don’t remember that happening in Paris or London.

Caricature of Ivor

On the Spanish steps we found a clutch of caricaturists (or should the plural be ‘an exaggeration of caricaturists‘?). Inevitably one of them invited me to sit for him. I explained I was a caricaturist myself and started to move on. To my surprise, he invited me to draw him. Somewhat taken aback I agreed and immediately regretted the decision when I sat down at his easel and saw his art materials. They were totally alien to me. He gave me a large sheet of paper and explained that he used a particular type. I wasn’t paying much attention to this as I tried to figure out how I was going to use his drawing materials. His main tool was a graphite pen that looked like a lipstick. This gave a sharp edge plus a large flat area to shade with. I did my initial sketch in light pencil then attempted to use the graphite lipstick. As with any new pieces of equipment you have to get used to them. As I was on holiday and had places to see and he needed to make a living I didn’t want to spend too much time on the drawing so it was mainly line work with a bit of cross hatching for shading. It was a good likeness of him though.

When I showed him the drawing he said I had drawn on the wrong side of the paper (which meant shading was difficult). He then wanted to draw me. I asked him to draw one of my children instead but he said he wanted to draw me specifically (you only insist on something like this when you think you can have some fun with a face). Within five minutes he had finished and demonstrated what could be done with a graphite lipstick and velvet coated paper when you know what you are doing. I tried to tip him but he insisted it was a gift, so thank you Sergio, it was good to meet you and if you ever come to England I will repay the compliment.

The food in Rome was generally good and inexpensive for a big city but strangely, we did not see a single olive during our stay. Plenty of olive oil but no olives – why?

Water fountain in Rome

The enduring memory I have of Rome though is the gift it has bequeathed to its citizens – water. No need to buy expensive bottled water in this city. Just fill up your old bottle with clean drinking water from one of the many fountains dotted throughout the city. Think of the plastic this saves. Think of the simple pleasure of being able to satisfy a fundamental bodily requirement such as thirst, in this large city. It was somehow an embodiment of ancient Rome, both extravagant and kind – bread and circus for its people, or rather, water and circus. It was incongruous at first seeing this precious resource, sparkling in the sunlight, pour onto the dirty streets of Rome. It was the same cognitive dissonance of seeing  filthy beggars still persisting amidst the extravagant wealth of a large Western city.

And we barely scratched the surface.